As professional strategic planning consultants and facilitators, we work with companies of all shapes and sizes, from cutting-edge technology to more mature industries like manufacturing and construction. Companies move at different speeds, and vary in terms of technology and R&D investments. Some companies are agile, and some are stodgy and slow.

This results in differing opinions on the proper methods for strategic planning. Some industries with long cycles (such as construction) warrant long planning cycles. One of our clients runs a large timber operation, and the state of California requires that they file a 100-year plan. I can’t make this stuff up.

Yet companies are shifting to shorter planning cycles, and more agile approaches to strategy formation and execution. Given the rate of change, companies need to move swiftly to fend off threats and capitalize on opportunities on a weekly or monthly basis.

Companies that plan for things they can foresee are in a better position to adapt to things they cannot predict. We’ve observed that the best-run companies we work with plan well into the future, but also promote systems and processes allowing them to pivot quickly based on changing market conditions.

While planning from quarter to quarter feels easier, that is exactly the trap that leads to short-term thinking. Our friends in public companies hate the unintended consequences of making numbers on a quarterly basis- the tendency to cut corners and make sacrifices in the near term.

So how are companies to plan for a future that’s impossible to predict, while remaining nimble?

Regularly review changes in the environment. Companies learn to keep their fingers on the pulse of environmental factors (political, technological, social, economic and ecological trends), and incorporate learning into strategy on an ongoing basis. For guidance, see our Market Research white paper.

Include external indicators in your KPIs. Another way to improve awareness of outside variables is to develop external, predictive key performance indicators. For example, economic indicators like housing starts or business spending could predict positive or negative volume in future quarters. Companies should always base forecasts on predictive indicators, such as the sales pipeline. See our scorecard guide.

Create an agile work environment. While much has been written about the Agile movement that took Silicon Valley by storm, more traditional companies have difficulty implementing daily scrums and other practices promoted by agile. We advocate for practices that promote both thoughtfulness and speed. A company’s management practices determine its ability to innovate, and the speed at which decisions are made. For example, executives fear “death by meeting”, but frequent short meetings provide the impetus for quick and efficient decision-making. Managers who trust their lieutenants to make daily operational decisions have more time to focus on high level strategy, and the flexibility to move the needle on things that matter most.